Lisa Halliday’s debut novel has a hall-of-mirrors quality to it. It begins conventionally: part one, ‘Folly’, is a love story involving a famous writer named Ezra Blazer – who pronouncedly resembles Philip Roth, with whom Halliday had an affair in real life – and a 25-year-old editorial assistant and quietly aspiring novelist, Alice. The love story may be conventional but it’s also delightful. Halliday writes memorable dialogue, with plenty of Hepburn and Grant-tinged sparring between the great Blazer and Alice: ‘Is she still alive, your grandmother?’ ‘Yep. Would you like her number? You’re about the same age.’ ‘It’s a little early in our relationship for you to be satirizing me, Mary-Alice.’ ‘Folly’ is set in Manhattan in the George W Bush era, implicitly a more innocent time. Alice’s name is no accident, nor – it emerges – is almost anything else in this rigorously engineered novel. While Halliday’s more overt Carrollisms include Alice drinking a glass of water and popping a pill or two, there are subtler references to the rabbit hole elsewhere.
The second part, ‘Madness’, is the seemingly unconnected story of Amar Jaafari, a dual Iraqi-US citizen detained at a British airport and waiting out the days until his ongoing flight. Amar’s flashback narrative pieces together his life in Obama’s USA and an unravelling Iraq. He turns out to have